Leveraging Learning Science to Maximize ROE: DevLearn 2023 Takeaways

Litmos’ Chief Learning Officer Dr. Jen Farthing and Senior Product Manager Travis Moses Westfall joined DevLearn 2023 to discuss the science of learning for better Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Expectations (ROE).

As part of the DevLearn 2023 Conference & Expo, Litmos’ Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Jen Farthing and Litmos’ Senior Product Manager, Travis Moses Westfall delivered a live presentation about how to operationalize the science of learning for better Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Expectations (ROE). They also discussed the foundational principles of adult learning, and how to measure the effectiveness of learning programs using those core adult learning principles.

Dr. Farthing and Mr. Westfall began their presentation by providing a brief overview on the state of learning and development (L&D) in business. The first striking statistic that Dr. Farthing highlighted was one that demonstrated the concerning lack of engagement that employees have felt at work, both before and after the pandemic. In 2022, she noted, a mere 23% of global employees were engaged at work. That’s up slightly from 21% in 2021. Dr. Farthing offered that “the power of online learning” should be used to address the engagement gap, and emphasized the impact of having a strong learning culture. “Studies show that organizations with strong learning cultures are more innovative, more productive, and get to market faster with new products and services,” Dr. Farthing pointed out. “And they’re more profitable,” she added.

Return on Investment (ROI) vs. Return on Expectations (ROE)

The need for workplace learning to improve employee engagement was made abundantly clear by the metrics Mr. Westfall shared in the next portion of the presentation:

  • 45% of employees state that they would stay longer at a company that offers learning opportunities.
  • 86% of employees report that they would be willing to change companies for better professional development opportunities elsewhere.

While most leaders are aware of this dire situation and understand why their organization needs continuous employee training, they may not know exactly what KPIs to measure for optimal training. During their presentation, Dr. Farthing and Mr. Westfall were quick to point out that most businesses focus primarily on the ROI of L&D initiatives. Executives may encourage L&D to focus on the quantifiable impact of learning programs, by asking them to identify which skills have been added to the workforce and to measure how those skills add to the company’s bottom line. However, less quantifiable elements of a learning program, such as its ROE, can have just as big of an impact on business outcomes.

Companies that can foster a culture of continuous learning can see better business outcomes. While it may seem difficult to measure something qualitative like culture, Dr. Farthing and Mr. Westfall argue that measuring learner engagement and the extent to which L&D programs meet learner expectations – ROE – can give organizational leaders solid insights into whether their programs are meeting business goals.

Foundations of Adult Learning

Dr. Farthing and Mr. Westfall explained the importance of designing a learning program with long-term goals in mind, and with measurable outputs that can help organizations truly measure learner engagement. They did so by first providing a brief overview of four foundational learning science theories: The Kirkpatrick Model of Evaluation, The Knowles Theory of Andragogy, Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, and Zimmerman’s Self-Regulated Learning (SRL).

They then explained how Kearsley and Schneiderman synthesized these into an Engagement Theory of Learning, focused on autonomy, self-efficacy, social connections, and the desire for relevancy. Dr. Farthing tied all of these learnings together nicely with a simple adage: “Good adult learning respects learners, fosters autonomy, includes ways for social connection, and most of all, has relevancy.”

“Learning above all is a social process,” Dr. Farthing noted. “Look at what we’re doing right now. We’re gathering in a community, we’re having cocktails, we’re listening to things about learning. So how do we learn? We know that we learn through observation, through imitation, and most of all, we desire connection.”

The key takeaway from this portion of the session? The more we engage with learners, the more we learn about what is important to them, and the more effective we can make their learning.

Reverse-Engineer Your Learning Program to Drive Long-Term Results

Intentional learning design that acknowledges these learner needs can achieve desired business outcomes. The theories of adult learning that Dr. Farthing and Westfall outlined in the presentation served as a foundation for the evaluation model they presented – a backwards-design approach for evaluating a learning program’s Return on Expectations (ROE).

Starting with long-term outcomes, L&D professionals can reverse-engineer their program to meet desired outcomes. Most businesses, Dr. Farthing explained, want to achieve productivity, profitability, customer retention, employee engagement, and employee satisfaction. But what drives these long-term outcomes? According to Dr. Farthing, short-term ones! A short-term goal as simple as keeping learners motivated along the way, for example, can be the key to unlocking more complex long-term goals. Building learning programs that can be continuously measured and improved is also a key component for successfully meeting short- and long-term training goals.

“You have to prove that you can help meet business KPIs. And how do you do it?” Dr. Farthing asked the audience. “You know what those KPIs are, so you backwards engineer (your training program) way back to ‘What are my training inputs?’ ‘What are my activities?’ and ‘What kind of outputs will I have?’ Those are your proof points. And the short-term outcomes naturally collect into those long-term business goals. Not just for the health of the business, but for your learners.”

By setting measurable goals with a clear process to track progress, Dr. Farthing and Mr. Westfall argue, you can make sure that your learners are making strides towards long-term objectives while meeting short-term deliverables that meet their expectations and foster engagement. Giving learners opportunities to socialize, independence in their learning paths, and an understanding of their training’s relevance can also create a greater sense of purpose.

Regularly review the results of your learning program through the lenses of ROI and ROE can help your team assess whether training meets long-term goals and learner needs. Ultimately, this will result in a more successful employee training program, and a more engaged and motivated learner.